Swans of the Kremlin: Ballet and Power in Soviet Russia, by Christina Ezrahi, Dance Books, RRP£19.99/University of Pittsburgh, RRP$27.95, 336 pages
After the revolution, what? It was Anatoly Lunacharsky, people’s commissar for education in the early years of the Soviet Union, who pledged that “the work of introducing the proletariat to the possession of all human culture shall remain my first task”. Noble words, which serve as a key to Christina Ezrahi’s fascinating study of how the Imperial Russian Ballet lived on even after its sustaining social order had been swept away.
The narrative of Swans of the Kremlin is centred upon the work of the Mariinsky/Kirov and Bolshoi theatres during the first 50 years of the Soviet era. Ezrahi is concerned with how classical dancing survived; how the repertoire mutated to encompass the need for socialist-realist themes in the “dramballets” that were the official creations of these years; and how what was effectively the dance establishment in the renamed Kirov Theatre in Leningrad and in the Moscow Bolshoi contrived to drag its heels in creating such dance-dramas.
We learn how, through delaying tactics that played the official system against itself, the advocates of ballet-as-dance in the Kirov could nullify the demands of their political masters to produce work on “contemporary Soviet topics”. Ezrahi’s prime example is the Kirov’s tedious three-acter ‘Russia’ has come into Port of 1964, which concerned a Soviet ship. Its creation took nearly five years, and it sunk without trace. With the “dramballets” that I have seen, interest has ever resided in the power of the dancers to colour politicised narrative with their vivid physical presence.
The hidden text of these years also concerns the heritage of classical academic dance brought to its imperial glory in Petipa’s ballets and, in Soviet times, developed in the teachings of the pedagogue Agrippina Vaganova. A mute, unfocused resistance in the ballet world somehow ensured that creativity and style were not submerged by political exigencies, that classical dancing did not have its wings clipped by the gestural needs of “correct” narrative, and that an element of artistic independence was secured.
As significant is the impact of those first tours to the west by the Bolshoi and Kirov companies from 1956. Their success provided Soviet authorities with pause for thought – and loot to bank. The eager response to the Petipa repertoire, to Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, to Grigorovich’s Spartacus, suggest how real was the ballet’s success in resisting a doctrinaire view of state art. Ballet had become a symbol of Soviet power, not least in performances for visiting dignitaries. (Said Nikita Khrushchev to Maya Plisetskaya, the Bolshoi’s assoluta: “If I think that tonight I shall have to see Swan Lake again, I feel sick ... At night I dream of white tutus alternating with tanks.”)
That dancing – ballet – has ever touched something vital in the Russian spirit we accept. That Russian ballet survived the extremes of Bolshevik revolution, adapted and yet remained true to itself, we know, and rejoice to know. Ezrahi helps us to understand how and why.
Clement Crisp is the FT’s dance critic